Avoiding conflict is a common problem in our workplaces. Conflict can be uncomfortable, scary and generally unpleasant, so it’s no surprise.
Leaders are often in the unenviable position of being in the middle of conflict. In the workplace, they’re often the best placed to take action to defuse conflict and have everyone working together more productively.
However, just because leaders may have authority and a position that helps them resolve conflict, this doesn’t make it any more pleasant.
So as leaders, what are we really doing when we start avoiding conflict at work?
In this post, I’ll take a look at some of the common outcomes from avoiding conflict. Then we’ll start to reframe them so that maybe tackling conflict doesn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.
Read on to the bottom of this post for a simple questionnaire to help you work out whether you should tackle conflict head-on or avoid it in your situation!
The Impact of Avoiding Conflict in the Workplace
While avoiding conflict can feel safe temporarily, it can create a very unsafe environment.
Avoiding conflict can cause all sorts of problems, including:
- Dysfunctional behaviour going unchecked, until it becomes a normal part of the organisation’s culture
- Ongoing poor performance which is never addressed
- Reputation damage for leaders who fail to tackle problems; and
- Overload, burnout and mental health challenges due to hesitation in pushing back on overwhelming workloads.
Unfortunately, I’m sure you have your own examples that you’ve observed for yourself. The last thing we want to do as leaders is to contribute to these!
What We’re Really Doing When We Avoid Conflict
Sometimes avoiding conflict seems like a great option. We can avoid feeling uncomfortable and needing to deal with strong emotions.
However, while avoiding conflict may instinctively feel good in the short-term, the long-term outlook may not be so rosy. Let’s take a look at some of the potential risks of a conflict-avoidant approach.
Delaying the Inevitable
Many workplaces are consumed by short-term thinking. It goes something like this:
“If I can just make it to the weekend, I can relax and deal with it next week.”
Instead of thinking about what needs to happen next week, we focus on getting to Friday. Then we repeat the cycle and that important action gets bumped to “next week” again.
The problem with avoiding conflict is that it usually solves very little. There are few problems that disappear by themselves, with no action.
That problematic team member, the frustrated colleague or disgruntled boss aren’t going anywhere. In fact, issues can fester, causing greater discontent over time, and a potential for greater conflict in the future.
Taking On the “Easy Targets”
Avoiding conflict can have the greatest effect on those that are “softer” targets. When we avoid conflict, we often change our point of focus to the people who are easiest to disappoint, including ourselves!
Here are some simple examples:
- We don’t want to tell the boss “No”, so instead we say “Yes” and cancel an appointment we had with one of our team members
- Instead of asking a difficult colleague to help you (when they are the right person to do it), you ask one of your team members to do the work instead, even though they’re already busy
- You know you’re overloaded with work, but instead of pushing back, you skip your workout class for the day and work late. In this example, you and your personal life are the easy targets!
- We avoid tackling a difficult conversation with a difficult team member, and the other team members will simply need to put up with the bad behaviour.
These examples are common, and often feel like an easy way out. That is, until you consider the potential longer-term impact of your actions.
Letting Others Set Our Direction
When we avoid conflict, we tend to compromise our own goals and aspirations in favour of avoiding those feelings of confrontation or strong emotions.
We bounce through the workplace like a pinball, following the path of least resistance.
The feelings of resistance and the source of our fear is what starts to drive our actions, and sets our direction. In this situation, it’s impossible to really get to where we need to go, because we’re bouncing along the path that others are setting for us.
By Avoiding Conflict, We Set a Precedent for the Future
When we fail to tackle conflict and instead run the other way, we set a precedent for the future.
This can happen in several ways. Firstly, the person who you’re afraid of can see that you avoid conflict, and may use this to get their own way in the future.
Second, you become accustomed to avoiding conflict. We get very good at doing what we continue to do. If you play the piano every day, you’ll become a better player. If you avoid conflict every day, you’ll get pretty good at that, too.
When avoiding conflict becomes your standard way of operating, it’s difficult to change. You will struggle to improve in conflict situations because you aren’t exposed to them enough to get better.
So, Do You Have a Problem With Avoiding Conflict?
Avoiding conflict is not *always* a problem. Sometimes, avoiding conflict can be a suitable approach depending on the situation.
Often those leaders who are continuously engaging in conflict are those who damage their reputation and become unpleasant characters to work with.
So, as with many things in leadership – we need to strike a balance. We need to engage in conflict when it matters, and let it go when it doesn’t.
The real trick is knowing which situations matter, and which don’t!
You’ll need to make the judgement call.
A Simple Conflict Avoidance Questionnaire to Help You Decide What Matters, and What Doesn’t
To help you decide on when you might want to engage in potential conflict, below is a handy questionnaire that you might find useful. Use it as a guide to make a call on your situation.
It’s worth remembering that engaging in conflict doesn’t necessarily mean being mean and nasty or having a fight, but it could mean having a conversation that might be uncomfortable or emotionally-charged.
Conflict can upset people, causing them to feel offended or insecure. However, if the stakes are high enough, then this is usually not a good enough reason to avoid the situation.
Have you spotted yourself avoiding conflict? What was the situation? What steps could you take now (or next time) to get a better outcome? Let me and all the other thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!